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Calls for Cease-Fire in South Carolina (Interview)

Location: Larry King Live

HEADLINE: John McCain Calls for a Cease-Fire in South Carolina
GUESTS: Bill Maher, John McCain
BYLINE: Larry King

KING: Monday morning, across America, the news magazines came out, and this man made the cover of all three of the biggies. He's Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. He's with us from the campus of Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. The primary is a week from Saturday. Next Tuesday night is the last and only debate left in Carolina. We'll be the moderator of that debate. We look forward to seeing Senator McCain and Governor Bush and Alan Keyes.

What did you make of Mr. Forbes leaving, John?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I think he conducted a very high-level campaign. I think he had a message, and particularly in the area of taxes. I don't think his message got the traction that it did in 1996 when he came out with a flat-tax proposal that I think intrigued a lot of Americans. But I would like to say that I think Steve conducted a very good campaign, and I'll miss him in the debate, because he added a lot to the campaign and to the debates.

KING: Do you think it will hurt you in that more—his supporters would be more inclined to go for Governor Bush?

MCCAIN: Well, actually here in South Carolina, a lot of his people have called and are coming over to our team, so I think it's a very mixed kind of a thing. So far, we've been very encouraged by what we've seen. So it—these things are a little hard to tell.


KING: ... people who were working for him in South Carolina have contacted you already.


KING: Were you a little surprised, since he's claiming to be the more conservative candidate and he was claiming to be the more conservative candidate than Governor Bush?

MCCAIN: Well, I think, Larry, the reason why we did so well in New Hampshire was we cut across the board, including a huge advantage in independents. But we won even conservative Republicans, and I think it's because of the message that people are attracted to of reform. And that cuts across liberal versus conservative. And we want to reform the government. We want to have campaign finance reform. We want to give the government back to the people. So it's—I think the appeal that I have is not so much appeal to a segment of the party, but across the board.

KING: What did you make when you saw the three magazines Monday? First of all, how did you feel?

MCCAIN: Well, I thought that I never thought I would live that long.


Obviously, I think it's good. It also gives one a sense of nervousness, because as we continue to gain traction in this campaign, there will be more intensity. There will be more scrutiny. There will be more opportunities for me to put my foot in my mouth.

I—you know that I am very capable of doing that, given my record. But also, it's very exhilarating and—and sounds a little corny, but one of the things I thought of is I think this might impress my children.

KING: Really?

MCCAIN: Yes, because my kids, you know—an old geezer like me, you know, it's hard to get their appreciation.

KING: The Army is kind of moving in. And a lot of your compatriots in the Senate and in the House where you formally served are all coming in this weekend, a lot moving in against you.


KING: Why?

MCCAIN: Well, because I'm threatening the establishment. I'm threatening the iron triangle of lobbyists, money and legislation.

They know the status quo will never be what it is today. It's a very cozy kind of situation we have in Washington that protects incumbents: huge amounts of money dispensed by lobbyists and special interests which then helps incumbents stay in office and affects legislation.

And I'm committed to reforming that.

Look, if anybody wants the status quo, they sure don't want to vote for John McCain, for me, and they feel very badly threatened. They never anticipated this clearly. I'm sure that you've heard that from many sources.

We're overjoyed. I say: Come on down; we're having a lot of fun, and it's a great ride. And I hope they'll enjoy it too.

KING: And you don't take it personally that people you serve with are supporting an opponent?

MCCAIN: Oh, you can't take these things personally. Of course, you get disappointed in a couple of them. But the key to it is don't be diverted, don't be concerned, press on with your message.

And listen, I feel like Luke Skywalker going—getting out of the Death Star. Boy, they're coming in from all sides, and we're having a great ride. And we—the young people are coming to our campaign in the way that this whole campaign was intended to.

The whole campaign is really about inspiring young Americans to commit themselves to causes greater than their self interests, to be involved in the political process. And frankly, I'm excited by the way that they are flocking to us: people of all ages and stripes.

And last night, we went to a high school. There was supposed to be 400 people there; 1,200 people showed up. It's been—it's been a marvelous ride so far.

KING: Yesterday, senator, Governor Bush said that you talk on one side about campaign finances and reform and everything, yet your big support comes from lobbyists and big companies, and you're the insider in the race. You have been the one inside Washington for 17 years. You're the one on the dole, so to speak. He's coming to reform.

How do you respond?

MCCAIN: Well, if I'm the insider, how come all the insiders are coming after me like gangbusters?


The real story of this campaign lately that has even astonished me, Larry, is that since last Tuesday night, we've gotten 2.2 -- excuse me -- $2.5 million over the Internet, that people have just gone on the Internet on and contributed to our campaign.

Let me put that in perspective for you. Up until last Tuesday night, we had led all of the candidates with $1.5 million in contributions. Here we have now since just last Tuesday 2 ½ million. And by the way, most of that is matchable because of the matching funds. It's been incredible.

We've now got to 70,000 people who have gotten on the Internet and volunteered for the campaign. That's really what this is all about.

And I don't think that those people would think I'm some kind of insider if they—they wouldn't be turning out in these incredible numbers.

KING: But the charge, is that for—bad advertising when he says you have accepted a lot of money and are involved a lot with lobbyists?

MCCAIN: I just—look, I mean, I—there's no point in getting into it, but not—I think last year Governor Bush had a fund-raiser in Washington with the lobbyists that raised a million dollars. We're having a fund-raiser on Thursday that we're going satellite from here to Washington, D.C., and 29 other locations around the country, including places like Bullhead City, Arizona.

Look, we know where our money has come from, and we also know that Governor Bush has raised more money than any candidate in the history of presidential politics. What I would really like to do is stop all of this back-biting and fighting and say, George, come on, let's quit, both of us, let's quit.

If I'm guilty of saying unkind things or running a bad ad, I'll drag mine down. We'll get back on the plane that we were on in the state of New Hampshire where people applauded the way we conducted that campaign.

So George, come on. Let's stop this. Let's stop our surrogates from attacking and impugning each other. Let's get back to a campaign that the American people, and frankly, we can be proud of.

And I'm not too proud of the way it's going right now.

KING: We'll pick right up on that when we come back. Our guest, Senator John McCain. He's coming to us from Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. Don't go away.


KING: We're back. Senator McCain just mentioned negativism. We're going to take a minute and show you two 30-second spots, one for his campaign, one for Governor Bush's, and then we'll ask him about them. Watch.


NARRATOR: John McCain's ad about Governor Bush's tax plan isn't true and McCain knows it. McCain's economic adviser says he'd support Bush's plan: 2 trillion to protect Social Security, pay down debt and a real tax cut.

McCain's plan: a tax cut smaller than Clinton's and not a penny in tax cuts for 30 million Americans.

On taxes, McCain echoes Washington Democrats when we need a conservative leader to challenge them. Governor Bush, proven, tested, ready to lead America.



NARRATOR: This is George Bush's ad promising America he'd run a positive campaign.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ... run a campaign that is hopeful and optimistic and very positive.

NARRATOR: This is George Bush shaking hands with John McCain, promising not to run a negative campaign.

This is George Bush's new negative ad, attacking John McCain and disporting his position.


NARRATOR: Support Bush's plan...


NARRATOR: Do we really want another politician in the White House America can't trust?


KING: OK, I guess that's a clear example, Senator McCain, of what's been going on in South Carolina.

MCCAIN: Yes, sure is.

KING: Do you think that Governor Bush broke his promise? Or would he say I'm just pointing out the facts?

MCCAIN: Well, I—I'm not interested in wasting too much time parsing his ad. But first of all, Vin Weber is not my top economic adviser and he didn't say that, and he has repudiated that ad.

But look, here's the point: For five days, ever since the New Hampshire primary, there were surrogates of Governor Bush attacking me and they're still attacking me. Governor Bush stood next to a veteran, stood next to him—a fringe veteran, a fringe veteran—who accused me of abandoning the veterans after I came home from prison: abandoning the veterans. That's a blow right at my honor and my record.

And he's—five senators, five senators, all of them Vietnam veterans, who served honorably, and some with great loss, have demanded that Governor Bush render an apology. So this party is getting rough.

We had to respond, and we will respond, but what I want to do again—I say again, George, let's take down the negative ads. Let's stop our surrogates from attacking each other. Let's get the campaign back where we were before, and that way I think we can be proud of this campaign. But, Larry, in all due respect, we saw what happened when Bill Bradley did not respond to Al Gore's attacks. Negative attacks have to be responded to.

KING: In other words you can't—if you see something, you—it's the old Clinton of '92, right? See something, respond that day.

MCCAIN: Oh, yes, you have to.

KING: I mean, that was their mode and when they ran that campaign.

MCCAIN: You have to...

KING: So that's your...

MCCAIN: You have to respond in the news cycle, you have to respond in the news cycle to a negative ad. Look, they have got the National Right to Life people attacking me. They have got the American—they have got the tobacco companies, the so-called Smokers' Alliance that are attacking me. You know, the people that addicted our children and lied to Congress, they're running ads attacking me.

KING: Well, you can't be surprised, can you? I mean...


KING: ... you have upset the apple cart, you can't—the heat—you know, the Truman adage—you're not shocked, are you?

MCCAIN: Sure. Listen, we're having a great time. As I told you, we're not diverting. We're getting out of the Death Star. We're having a great time. And so—but the fact is that I am going to respond to those attacks if necessary. But we don't have to do that. We don't have to do that. We don't have to be like Gore and Bradley or other campaigns.

We can—George Bush is a good man, and he would make a good president of the United States. I would just make a better one, and I hope that we can stop this and stop this immediately and get on to the debates about health care, education, restoring the military, all of the issues that are important to the future of America. I don't think that the people of South Carolina are getting a lot out of this right now.

KING: That debate next Tuesday, we'll concentrate a lot on all the issues that have been mentioned and we'll try to keep that on a firm plain as...

MCCAIN: I am sure you will.

KING: ... the combatants gather before the vote on Saturday the 19th.

We'll be back with our remaining moments with Senator John McCain of Arizona right after this.


KING: Senator McCain, in our remaining moments, how do you see South Carolina? What do your latest polls show? Everyone has polls every other minute. How are you doing at this minute?

MCCAIN: Well, we haven't taken a poll, but there are public polls—one of them shows me 4 points ahead. One of them shows us even. I think this is going to be a very close campaign. I think it could be a very close election. It's getting pretty rough. In New Hampshire, there was a lot of movement in the last couple of days. It wouldn't surprise me if that is the case here in South Carolina as well.

Our message is getting across. People are coming to our town hall meetings and our rallies. It's—they're very enthusiastic, and I am very enthusiastic about our message of reform, reform of education, the government, the military, and the tax code and the commitment I have to get the special interests and their big money out of Washington and give these people back their government. That's resonating.

You know, when we began this campaign, the pundits said there is no room for campaign finance reform in this campaign. Well, we made room, Larry. Last Tuesday night, a campaign in New Hampshire ended, a great crusade all over this country began.

KING: What about—South Carolina is not New Hampshire, though, right? It's a very different kind of state, isn't it?

MCCAIN: Well, I think in some respects it's a little different. But in New Hampshire, they're very fiscally conservative—in New Hampshire, there's very promilitary, very large number of veterans, more per capita than any other state.

KING: You mean in South Carolina?

MCCAIN: Yes, in South Carolina, I'm sorry. More veterans per capita than any other state. A lot of patriotism here, a lot of conservatism. So I think it is a little bit different, but there's also been a lot of growth here. There's high-tech. There's businesses and industries, cities like Greenville that have really grown. There's been a lot of growth and business activity here in this state as well, so it's—demographically it has changed somewhat.

KING: Do you want to respond to Senator Bradley's attack yesterday on both you and the governor for this continued support of the people's right to keep that Dixie flag?

MCCAIN: Well, what my position has been is that I support their right to decide themselves without outside assistance as I did in the case of Dr. Martin Luther King, when we were struggling for his recognition in the state of Arizona. But I respect Bill Bradley's views and I thank him for the advice, and I'll try and give him some several times in the future like on the issue of ethanol subsidies.

KING: Are you continuing to enjoy yourself even though you're saying it's got so negative? Every time we see you, you say you're enjoying yourself. You can't enjoy it—when it's negative you can't enjoy it.

MCCAIN: Oh, yes you can, Larry, you can't let it divert you. This is the most exhilarating and exuberant experience of my life except for the day that I left prison. Look, here is a guy that was fifth in the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, and here I am! It's marvelous. We have wonderful people around us. We have got people coming and saying hello and being supportive. Look, I can't tell you how wonderful this ride has been. And, sure, I'll be glad when we reach the end of the trail, but it will be the most memorable experience of my life.

KING: Thanks so much, Senator. We'll see you next Tuesday night.

MCCAIN: Look forward to seeing you, Larry.

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